For decades, I wanted to visit the place where Pa and Ma Ingalls, of Little House on the Prairie, had homesteaded in South Dakota. In July, 2013, I did just that.
Homesteaders are a hardy lot — with a hardy sense of adventure; or perhaps it is more about hope – hope for a better life, better occupation, better cash flow, better piece of ground, or better opportunity. “Your father seeks out adventure,” my mother confided. “I do not.” Regardless of her bent, she was an adventure — and a homesteader.
Dad and Mom were farm kids who had known land — both good and bad, both their own and sharecropped, In Alaska they homesteaded with the hope – and pride – of calling a piece of land their own. They spent three cold and thigh-deep snowy winters clearing 8 to 10 acres — by hand—for a house, cabin, barn, hangar, outbuildings, garden, and a half-mile long airstrip. I spent five minutes straddling a log and attempting to strip the bark before running off to play and handing off the blade to Mom. My grandmother bleached the newly peeled cabin logs. My grandfather dug a septic tank. Mom tilled the garden, hauled water for irrigation, and fought off moose. I nibbled on tender carrots and savored juicy strawberries. Dad tried to grow oats. He and Mom fought the natural elements— the below zero temperatures, the tinder-dry black spruce and fear of forest fires, the short growing season, and the springtime road-turned-bog. We all battled mosquitoes as aggravating as grasshoppers and crows on the Midwest prairie land.
Through my little-girl eyes, Laura Ingalls’ life was idyllic – even in blizzards, droughts, and pestilence. My sister and I played the parts. I was Pa and she was Ma.
Laura’s stories jumped to life when Mom let us order a cover for our red American Flyer wagon. Inside this covered wagon, we piled dolls, stuffed animals, and our black Pekingese. We jolted to the wild frontier of our backyard of rocks, roots, and dirt clods. Now we had work to do, but we were up to it. We gathered cranberries to feed our collection of children.
I was a hardy homesteader — as a child.
In De Smet, South Dakota. I toured Laura Ingalls’ house, schools, town, homesteads, and cemetery. I was an adult, and I recognized the reality behind her endearing stories.
No matter where or when a homesteader homesteads, they are greeted by similar hard work, isolation, weather issues, goodbyes to family and friends, and stretched money.
No matter the reality, in 2013, I was just as enthralled by the “Little Town on the Prairie” outdoor pageant, as I’d been as a gradeschooler reading, Little House in the Big Woods.
One of my manuscript critiquers for From Kansas Wheat Fields to Alaska Tundra: a Mennonite Family Finds Home grew up on Nebraska farmland. He devoured the chapters about homesteading in Alaska; he admitted that as a kid, he’d read all the Laura Ingalls’ books, too.
After the book was in print, a reviewer told me, “Your Kansas – Alaska” book is just like a “Little House” storybook. I smiled. That was the highest compliment I could wish for.
Over the years, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant has become a local tradition. Each summer more than a hundred volunteers combine their talents to present a family-friendly drama based on the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder. People from all over the world gather together on the beautiful South Dakota Prairie and step back into history to a time when the West was just opening up to a wave of pioneering men and women. It is our goal to preserve–through drama–the family values and pioneering spirit of the Ingalls family.